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Lacklustre praise

14 November 2014

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MY VIEWINGS of Songs of Praise tend to be rather spread out these days. After working on the strand off and on for about 15 years as producer, director, and, eventually, series producer, it was important to give it a long rest, and interesting to return to it for a health check every now and again. So it was with a mixture of fond memories and the feelings of visiting an ageing but popular aunt that I sat down to watch the offering for Remembrance Sunday (BBC1).

What I discovered was a programme strangely lacking in confidence and, I suspect, money. For no obvious reason, it was a live show; but why go to all that trouble for an old-fashioned, traditional programme, based almost entirely in an apposite but rather uninspiring church at army HQ in Aldershot? There were several glitches, which undermined trust in the production; but, that aside, it was just a bit dull.

Remembrance, in some ways, is an open goal for Songs of Praise: you cannot really go wrong, and yet it is tricky to follow the magnificence of the Royal Albert Hall the previous evening, and the grandeur, royalty, and solemnity of the Cenotaph. Songs of Praise really has to deliver on the next level.

I can recall magnificent programmes, pre-recorded from cathedrals in Ely and Portsmouth, and stunning outside broadcasts from Ypres and Flanders Fields. The only outstanding parts of this programme were the wonderful war artist Arabella Dorman, and a serving soldier, Major Rob Hoey, both of whom were in pre-recorded features. There was nothing wrong with the programme (although why Michael Ball had to sing the whole of "Abide with me" on his own in front of the congregation is a mystery), but it lacked the courage of its convictions and, probably, the money to do anything more ex-citing.

For several years, religion has been losing its bottle in broadcasting. When I left the BBC, it came as a surprise to me, therefore, that, in the real world, religion is being taken very seriously indeed. I am now involved with "religious literacy" training, working in partnership with some commercial and governmental institutions who have recognised that you can no longer not "do God", and are striving to help religion to become an asset to society rather than the liability it so often is.

Religious broadcasting should be playing its part in this much-needed re-education. But, if it fails, at least it is good to know that, in one or two other parts of the BBC, religion is still considered interesting and important. Meandering through daytime TV the other day, I found an edition of Flog It! (BBC 1) from Bristol, where Paul Martin was, as usual, encouraging people to sell their antiques.

Halfway through the programme, however, we were taken to the New Room, in the city centre, the oldest Methodist chapel in the world, and we heard a short extract from one of Wesley's sermons, delivered in character by the actor Mark Topping.

It was full of facts and insight: the services started at 5 a.m. so that the labourers could attend before work; Wesley was good friends with Josiah Wedgewood, etc. It was a perfect example of well-informed commentary about religion.

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